Are You a Virago?

I finally looked the word up. I thought I knew that it meant an outspoken, hot-tempered woman — a shrew, in fact. My dictionary (Webster’s Third International: old school) offered “termagant” as a synonym. Don’t you love the word “termagant?” I hope to use it soon. But Webster’s also offered me “a woman of great stature, strength, and courage: one possessing supposedly masculine qualities of body and mind.” The root, of course, is the Latin vir, or man. The adjective, thrillingly, is “viraginous.”

When Virago Modern Classics began appearing back in the 1970s I assumed the name of the imprint referred to the supposedly shrewish, outspoken qualities of women. But I must have had it wrong. Virago, in this instance, probably referred to women of stature and courage — a wonderful name for an entity that published forgotten books by women.

Which brings me to the Virago Reading Week organized this month by Rachel of Book Snob and Carolyn of A Few of My Favourite Books. Latest news from Rachel is that it will kick off on Monday January 24, ending Sunday January 30. I was incredibly impressed by the spreadsheet put together by the Virago Modern Classics group on Librarything. For reviews, check Verity’s Virago Venture. I expect to do the bibliophile’s version of “shopping in your closet,” i.e. shopping on my book shelf. Antonia White’s Frost in May and Elizabeth Taylor’s Palladian beckon, but I might also fall into the entertaining arms of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd.

So all that remains to be determined is how we pronounce the word. VirAYgo? VirAHgo? I await instructions.

(Post script: Instead of Aurora Floyd I read Enid Bagnold’s sublime The Loved and Envied. Even won a new Virago book for the post! Thanks, Rachel!)

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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5 Responses to Are You a Virago?

  1. Heather says:

    Merriam-Webster gives the vir-AH-go pronunciation first, and that’s the one that “sounds better” to me, but I’ve got no idea how those who produce the books say it.

  2. carolwallace says:

    I agree with you but I was corrected the one time I tried to say it out loud!

  3. Annie says:

    I’ve never heard the first pronunciation you suggest and I’ve been around the UK literary scene since before the imprint began. I would definitely go with the second.
    When does the Webster definition date from? Is it very early? I can imagine men not liking the notion of “a woman of great stature, strength, and courage: one possessing supposedly masculine qualities of body and mind” and therefore starting to use the term in a derogatory manner. But perhaps I’m just a cynic!

  4. carolwallace says:

    Oh, Annie, thank you. I think I’ve been misled for years (that BTW is a word I long said as MEYzled so you can see where the problem might lie).

    As to the etymology, OED gives “a man-like heroic woman”as the definition, coming from the Vulgate where, o frabjous day, it is used for Eve. And this definition appears to have held fairly constant until mid-18th century. So, yes, derogatory overlay. Which clearly Carmen Callil saw right through.

    Thank you, this was a delightful start to a dark, sleety morning. I will try to be viraginous all day long.

  5. Pingback: Persephone Reading Weekend « Book Group of One

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